Angered by humankind's experimentation with gunpowder and artillery, the gods have opened a doorway to the afterlife and let an undead army loose. Seems pretty spiteful, but given that the Greek gods punished Prometheus for giving fire to humanity by having an eagle eat his liver for eternity, not really out of character.
That's why the gods must die. "Your job really is to kill them," says Derek Bradley, CEO of A44 Games and game director of the studio's first release, Ashen. "You're very, very focused on that."
In Flintlock, the surviving humans have formed a coalition army. You play Nor Vanek, a member of that army tasked with reassembling a band of explosive experts called the Blackstream sappers. When the coalition army gets to the City of Dawn—a kind of Mount Olympus stronghold—the sappers will blow up the walls, and then it'll be time to kill the gods, close the Door to the Afterlife, and save the world. Easy-peasy.
Like A44's previous game Ashen, Flintlock is a soulslike, though it seems to be diverging from the formula more than Ashen did. As well as using her boarding axe and pistol in the rhythmic dodge-and-parry combat, Nor has a variety of magical powers courtesy of a strange creature who gifts them for reasons of its own. "You get sort of manipulated into a relationship with this little evil fox-like thing that decides to join you as well," Bradley says, describing Nor's companion Enki. "So you can kind of bring the magic and the explosives to the army."
As the trailer that premiered during this year's PC Gaming Show highlighted, that magic includes traversal powers to get you around Flintlock's open world. When Enki swirls around Nor, she can zip up to and between floating golden triangular nodes, then dash down from them into enemies. These traversal points aren't present from the start, however, and have to be activated by finding cursed bones that might be protected by minibosses, or summon undead when used.
That way, your first time visiting a location you have to engage with it at ground level. "You'll start in a zone with absolutely no triangles so you're very much grounded," Bradley explains, "and as you unlock more triangles, you end up unlocking these highways that can interact with each other." He compares swinging along them to the feel of Insomniac's Spider-Man, with one important difference. "In Spider-Man you could just grapple to every single building right from the start. With this you work for it, and it transforms the zone and gives you this dramatic arc."
It combines with your blackpowder—as well as a flintlock pistol, Nor wields various explosives—which can be used to alter your arc in mid-flight. Basically, you can stunt through the air. "We have systems, maybe a little bit similar to how you get points for doing tricks in Tony Hawk, where anything you do around this open world lets you get points," Bradley says, "which is sort of an influence system." Those influence points can be spent at army requisitions or bandit stores for more blackpowder, among other things. They're also the thing you lose if you fail a corpse run.
As in every soulslike, making regular use of bonfire save points or the local equivalent is essential. In Flintlock, they're campsites. "Stepping right back to the bonfires in Dark Souls, we've combined our home town, like we had in Ashen, and the bonfire," Bradley says. "The campsite you see that grows a little bit in the trailer is actually your bonfire and your home base. Anywhere you go in the world, you can go light the bonfire and your team will actually come in with their wagons and set up around you."
Left to their own devices, the inhabitants of your town in Ashen would add to and expand it by themselves. If you ever wished all that hammering the settlers in Fallout 4 did would amount to anything, in Ashen it did. It seems like Flintlock's campsite will be similar. "At the start of the game it begins as almost nothing," Bradley says. "It's just the bonfire and one of your team members who plays the guitar very badly. By the end of the game you have caravans around you."
Flintlock's setting is a fantasy world, but a lot of research went into it. The early 19th century look is based on studying Napoleonic uniforms and military history, for instance. "The way that our trenches are set up with wattle retaining walls as they did in Napoleonic times instead of having sandbags is due to us researching our own world," Bradley says. The Wellington-based studio put a lot of their New Zealand home into it as well.
New Zealand is an ideal landscape for a fantasy setting, as the Lord of the Rings movies showed, and its plants and animals were an inspiration too. "There is an old extinct bird called a moa, which was apparently like an ostrich on steroids," Bradley says. "We did look at those pretty closely, but then, of course, took them towards our own fantasy birds. The army in the game use our moa equivalent instead of horses, to pull carts and do all that kind of stuff."
Birds seem to feature quite heavily, like the winged boss-type creature who might be one of the gods you're out to kill. "There are a lot of birds actually," Bradley says, "we've pushed quite heavily towards birds. Partly because we've been looking at ancient Mesopotamian gods as being a backbone for the game, which is why Enki is this sort of feathered fox thing with bird claws and monkey paws."
Being a soulslike, there are obligatory giant spiders as well, though A44's trying to make the de rigeur enemy its own. "I think one of the things that the team's really excited about at the moment, and we're in the process of working on, is this sort of undead goat-spider thing that doesn't really behave like a spider or a goat, or any of the undead. But it's just terrifying."
To fill a world with unusual creatures takes time. To free up that valuable resource, A44 used Unreal's MetaHuman tool to roll out believable character faces without needing a lot of input from animators and artists. "In terms of the fidelity of the faces," Bradley says, "how they wrinkle, how they move, how they do all of that kind of stuff, it was actually very, very useful and saved our team quite a lot of time. As a smaller studio trying to do a big thing, the more that our team can be focused on those weird and wonderful monsters that they're making and not just sitting there crafting human faces forever is massive."
The size of the studio also impacted how the open world was put together. Instead of filling it with quest after quest, a bunch of which will sink to the bottom of your log and get forgotten anyway, they focused on quality over quantity. "I'm quite a big believer in environmental storytelling," Bradley says, "making you feel like you're in a quest when you're doing content that someone has put a lot of time and effort into. You don't necessarily need to be tracking your shopping list while you're doing that stuff, and I think it allows your shopping list to be a little bit richer. Because we haven't aimed for like 1,000 quests in the game, I think we've gone more towards quality and environmental storytelling and just having enough."
Those quests apparently vary from personal stories given by the crew you assemble at your camp, to Red Dead Redemption-style tableaus, where you stumble across events already in motion and decide whether to step in. Then there are the more complicated ones, "which lean maybe more towards Witcher-type quests," Bradley says. All of these side objectives are secondary to your overall goal though, which is to kill the gods. But how do you do that with a gun, an axe, and some bombs?
Maybe Enki has a plan. In the footage we've seen, one of Enki's powers suspends enemies, floating where Nor can finish them off. "When he pulls an enemy up into the air he's absorbing their soul," Bradley explains, "and when you shoot them, it weakens them enough that he could actually pull their energy out of them. So anything that is immortal, you can kill."
Flintlock: The Siege of Dawn is scheduled for release in 2023. You can wishlist it on Steam.